The question of membership of the European Union has loomed large because of the recent successes of UKIP in Britain. Many of the questions raised by it also underlie the recent Scottish ‘independence’ referendum: questions of nationalism and internationalism. Both are or might be settled in referenda.
Thus many of the points I have argued in the posts on the Scottish referendum apply to the debate on Europe, which I was addressing in a series of posts before I interrupted them to post on Scotland. This post continues to look at the issues that are thrown up for the Left by looking at the ‘great debate’ generated by Britain’s potential membership of the Common Market (as the EU was called then) in 1971.
In the previous post on the question I looked at the views of the International Socialists (IS), which was the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party.
By the time of the ‘great debate’ among the ruling class in 1971 over joining the Common Market the majority of the International Socialists appeared to have dropped their previous attitude, which recognised the positive features of the capitalist European project (while still recognising that the working class had to assert its own position).
Instead the majority position appeared to be represented by a Chris Harman article in their journal ‘International Socialism.’ In this article Harman provided an analysis of what the European Economic Community was – “The Common Market is essentially what its title says it is – a business arrangement, an agreement between different capitalist ruling classes, relating to the way in which they organise their markets.”
“The second aim of the Common Market has been to move beyond being merely a unified arena within which different competing national capitalisms compete, to the beginnings of a positive integration of the rival capitalist classes.”
“There are a number of steps which would have to be taken for such a merging of interests to occur.” These included that:
“ Impediments to the free movement of capital from one country to another would have to be done away with.
Legislation and tax policies in different countries have to be made homogenous with one another.
Exchange rates of the different European currencies with one another should be fixed immutably,
and preferential treatment in the allocation of governmental contracts to national rather than other European firms would have to be overcome.”
Today some of these steps have been taken while others are still the subject of controversy, such as harmonisation of taxation. Others have been surpassed, such as the creation of a common currency. All are steps that a state must take to advance a unified European capitalism.
Harman maintains that “paradoxically, the very internationalism of capitalism is an important factor enhancing the role of the national state.” The problem then is to create a European state that can do at a European level what national states have been unable to do for their national capitalisms:
“The failure of the nationally based capitalisms to begin to merge with one another does not, however, do away with the need for them to do so. Resources have to be mobilised and production organised on a continental, rather than a merely national basis, for survival in the most advanced industries. Europe’s failure to integrate has been paralleled by a failure to keep up with the international leaders in such fields.”
So the problem becomes a political one: European capitalism “wants a ‘Europeanisation’ of capital – but this continually clashes against national state boundaries. The only way out would seem to be to somehow reduce the dependence of firms on the national state by developing some sort of European state.”
Harman sees the mechanism to achieve this as the European Commission, which he states was the original intention of the Treaty of Rome, officially the Treaty setting up the EEC.
“The Commission, it was implied, would represent a political projection of the economic trend for national boundaries to be superseded. What the international companies were accomplishing in economic terms, the Commissioners would accomplish politically. Eventually they would concentrate in their hands the budgetary and monetary prerogatives of national governments, and oversee on a European scale the economic and social needs of the system as a whole. At this point the present national governments would be effectively redundant. Such was the dream of the more extreme ‘Europeans’  – and the nightmare of those who criticise the Market from the point of view of ‘national sovereignty’.”
“However, there is little evidence that the Commission has been able to fulfil this role at all, even in an embryonic form. So far the European institutions have not begun at all to rise above the squabbles of opposed national interests.”
“The failure of the Commission to develop as an autonomous power has effectively left real power with the separate governments. But these remain under the sway of different national economic interests and political orientations. Their interaction so far has failed completely to produce the sort of single minded direction that would correspond to the needs of the advanced sections of capital seeking integration.”
In part this would seem to be a failure of the institutions to take on the most essential role of the capitalist state:
“Above all the state remains the chief means by which the capitalist class exercises its political and ideological control over the rest of society. This does not only mean repression, although it remains of crucial significance. Also involved is guaranteeing the conditions under which subordinate classes can identify with the status quo.”
“Left to themselves the rival capitalist concerns would tear society apart in their relentless search for profits. The state prevents this, in so far as it can, in the interests of continued capitalist domination. It tries to integrate the middle classes into the system by all sorts of privileges for them; it attempts to placate working class discontent by ‘welfare’ policies and the like; budgetary and other measures are used to impose some restraint on economic fluctuation and to ensure some evenness of economic development in the different regions of the country.”
While the seemingly natural workings of the capitalist market, and the widespread view that there is no alternative, is the primary ideological force imprisoning workers, nationalism is the primary means by which the subordinate classes identify with the status quo. This allows support for a variety of policies that the state can pursue but none that involve breaking the bounds of what is defined as the national interest, and certainly none that threaten capitalism or that point to a socialist alternative.
It is the national state that continues to tax and spend and so continues to pull the levers of privilege sought by the middle class and which also form the basis of welfareist measures to placate workers. It also still has powers to ameliorate economic fluctuations endemic to the capitalist economy and which today’s EU has been so criticised in the ‘Euro crisis’ for being unwilling or unable to introduce, at least to the extent some consider necessary, (such as quantitative easing, Eurozone debt instruments etc).
It is not quite true today that, as Harman said over 40 years ago, “the European institutions have not begun at all to rise above the squabbles of opposed national interests” but it remains true that the European project has not won the workers of Europe to identification with its institutions or ultimate objective of a European state. This means that national political forces continue to promote nationalist solutions, or solutions premised on nationalist assumptions, which therefore create difficulties for everyone when they need to take steps that go beyond the framework of the nation state.
These difficulties can become quite acute. In January the ‘Financial Times’ carried a long article – ‘Torn in two’ – about the Tory leader David Cameron and his decision to call an in-out referendum on British membership of the EU by 2017. ‘The British prime minister’s ‘in-out’ EU referendum strategy looks like it is backfiring as he is caught between the anti-Europe faction of his Conservative party and powerful business groups.’
The Eurosceptic wing of the party has grown and is now making demands that Cameron cannot satisfy and which therefore threaten British membership of the EU and the vital interests of big business that are associated with it. It is making demands that would mean, according to former Foreign Secretary William Hague, that “the European Single Market would not work” and other demands on restricting immigration from Eastern Europe that would be illegal under EU law.
The article quotes a spokesperson for a right-wing think-tank saying that “the party is going to split, there’s no doubt about it.” It quotes former leader John Major saying that “calling three of my colleagues bastards was absolutely unforgiveable. My only excuse is that it was true”. The number of bastards has grown and some in big business have become concerned.
“Bankers attending last year’s Tory conference were startled by the pervasive mood of “rabid” euroscepticism. “It seems to me they are bending more and more to Eurosceptic concerns because of Ukip, and the more they do that , the more unhappy business will be,” says a City worker. “Companies want better outcomes from Brussels but you don’t get it by shouting insults from the sidelines. City lobbyists are gearing up for intensifying discussions with senior Tories. The Square Mile realises that if it waits for the referendum to be called, it could be too late to influence the debate.”
Contrary to the Tory policy of seeking big changes to powers given over to the EU, the City of London has taken the “view that there was no need for a “repatriation of powers” but that Britain should strengthen its ties with Brussels, for example by boosting the number of UK officials working there. “There is no prospect of negotiating a better deal for Britain of any significance” says a leading City manager.”
The split in the Tory party reflects the division in its support between big business which has Britain as its main base, but Europe and the world as its field of operations, and small capitalists and reactionary middle class who need not or cannot see further than the British market and for whom a ‘little Englander’ mentality is perfectly satisfactory for their position in the world.
The dynamic development of capitalism continues to disrupt all class and political relations just as much, if not more, than its revolutionary effects so vividly captured by Karl Mark over 150 years ago in ‘The Communist Manifesto.’
This development causes problems not only for the right but also the left. Harman writes that “of course, the development of the forces of production demands the creation of a European state. But then the development of the forces of production also demands a socialist revolution. It may well be the case that the former will take place after the latter.”
If only this were true the problems posed by it not being true would not prove such a barrier to an internationalist policy. Harman appeared to believe that the European capitalist project would fail but so far it has not:
“Indeed, it is an important fact that there seems to be no historical precedent for the peaceful integration of different bourgeois states. A minimum of physical force has always had to be used. The examples of Germany, Italy and the US bear this out. In the modern world national ruling classes are more closely linked to national state structures than ever before. There is no certainty that such an obstacle to unity can be removed.”
On top of this the prospect of socialist revolution in Europe looks further away than it did in 1971. The view that the problems posed by the continuing rapid development of capitalism can somehow be ignored through the immediate alternative being a programme of socialist revolution is obviously mistaken. But how is it mistaken and how does this relate to a socialist approach to the EU? In the next post on the ‘great debate’ I will look at what policy Harman advocated and the alternative put forward in the same issue of ‘International Socialism’ by his comrade Ian Birchall.